I have confessed to some of you my growing interest in a collection of interrelated ideas that have born various titles over the centuries. Where they were once considered sophisticated and respectable philosophy, they are now generally termed “hermetic” or “metaphysical” or “esoteric.” When I first began to read them in the hopes of better contextualizing my work on the history of earliest Mormonism, I mostly chuckled in my sleeve. As I have spent more time with their texts and ideas, I think I have come to understand some of the impulses motivating their ideologies.
One of the principles of these philosophies that I find most interesting–as a Mormon, a cultural historian, and an intellectual dilettante–is what is called correspondence (or the law of correspondence, or metaphysical correspondence). In its most basic form, correspondence maintains that similarities between the human and cosmic planes of existence are both meaningful and powerful. In terms favored by learned adherents, the “microcosm” (representing human life or the human body) parallels the “macrocosm” (representing the galaxy or universe), and microcosm and macrocosm influence each other.
Emanuel Swedenborg, the best-known preacher of correspondence in modern (i.e. 18th century) Europe, presented a particularly extreme version. According to Swedenborg, the universe is configured in the form a giant human, the Maximus Homo. Some planetary systems are located at the universe’s spleen or colon, while others are its head or components of its brain. It was this parallel between the human body and the cosmos, so difficult for us to understand now, that allowed Swedenborg to traverse the entire universe over the course of his mystical career. His body contained the universe in some important way.
While Swedenborg’s is a striking system, the much more familiar zodiacal body exhibits the same fundamental impulse. For regular Americans up through the beginning of the nineteenth-century, it was common to see the zodiac configured in the shape of a human body. Human bodies, human fates, made a certain kind of sense within an organized universe. In the zodiac, we see some of the clues as to why correspondence would be such a powerful explanatory system.
In 1835, John Fellows, an idiosyncratic autodidact with a penchant for long titles, wrote a hefty tome entitled An Exposition of the Mysteries; or Religious Dogmas and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Pythagoreans, and Druids. Also: an Inquiry into the Origin, History, and Purport of Freemasonry. In this book he provided an annotated translation of Abbe Pluche’s History of the Heavens and his own attempts to tie American Freemasonry into ancient philosophical traditions. Pluche and Fellows wax positively rhapsodic about Egyptian astrology and its integration into the cyclic flooding of the Nile. In their characterization of the seasons of fertility and destruction along the Nile, we get a glimpse of the power of the stars.
It wasn’t until I had moved back to the West as an adult and begun to cultivate a garden that I could understand viscerally or intuitively what they meant. According to the Pluche/Fellows account (and neither is an original thinker by any stretch), the ancient Egyptians watched carefully to understand when the Nile would flood, wreaking momentary destruction en route to the replenishment of the fertile riparian soil on which they relied for their livelihoods. Few of us know starvation (thank heavens), but if the seasonal cycles failed to operate in their expected course for our ancestors, there stood the very real possibility of death from starvation. Who among us would not have been a careful student of the stars if they provided direction as to the timing of the Nile floods and the possibility of a plentiful harvest? Given that weather is in part determined by the alignment of planets and stars (e.g. the axial declination of the earth in its orbital plane around the sun and its rotation about the sun, which affect both total sunlight AND the appearance of the night sky), there is reason to believe that such important information could indeed derive from celestial bodies.
Closer to modern times the almanac still attempts to describe and predict the effects that celestial bodies will have on human lives, though we are increasingly isolated from those effects (or imagine that we are) by the complex networks of industrial nutrition. With our garden and my wife’s considered and enthusiastic commitment to the cycles of the natural world, I feel myself drawn to harmonize with those cycles, to eat (as my wife argues in a forthcoming essay) according to the seasonality enjoined by the Word of Wisdom, to feel my life change as the weather does. The now mostly infantilized word horoscope itself points to the marking and passage of time, an inspection of the “hours” of our lives and the life of the cosmos. I am no judicial astrologer (those who believe that our personal fates are determined by cosmic alignments), but I am a grateful viewer of the celestial bodies and participant in the rhythms they impose on earthly life.
So when I read Joseph Smith’s sermons comparing celestial to human bodies, when I read that the earth itself, once purged of the resurrected dead, will become a Urim and Thummim, a luminous orb in a chain of such orbs connecting humanity and the marvelously physical contexts for their mortal lives, I remember the tiny sprouts of our beets in June and the wondrous, succulent roots that they become (baked for 60-90min in tinfoil at 350F) by early September. I feel gratitude for the snowstorms that replenish the waters of the Wasatch and its human populations. I marvel at the spring appearance of a cow moose and her calf, and the strange miracle of bears sleeping for months in a state of suspended animation. And when I watch the stars in the perfectly black nights of the Uinta mountains, I remember Joseph Smith staring into the same space, according to his autobiography, and espying the love of God.